Our Country Comes Skiing in Peace

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Iran 28

Mike Appleton's going to get us arrested in Iran. We're in Ayatollah Khomeini's shrine on the outskirts of Tehran when he turns his camera on a group of little boys. The flash goes off and the Basiji, lurking in corners, descend. They drag him off while families unload picnic baskets of boiled eggs, yogurt, and naan. A tiny man in a starched white turban folds his brittle bones to the marble floor, praying to the country's cruelest liberator.

The Basiji can tear off Mike's fingernails if they want to. They're Iran's religious police, and they're authorized to use torture whenever they deem necessary. Which is often. But Mike's on his own, because I'm surrounded by a hundred Muslim women dressed in head-to-toe chador in the women-only section of the shrine. Green glass obscures Khomeini's tomb. Girls pray and slip money through cracks. I sit down and pull out my notebook so I can hide from the sea of eyes that has settled on me.

Meanwhile, Mike is being interrogated. "Boys? Why boys?" the Basiji ask. "Why women?" Five years ago, Canadian journalist Zahra Kazemi was beaten to death by guards at Evin Prison for taking pictures outside the building. But Mike gets a break. The Basiji want to know what Americans think of Iran. "A desert full of religious fanatics," Mike says, and this makes them laugh. He tells them he wants to show America the real Iran, to educate the people. He's released, but not without a copy of Khomeini's speeches compiled in a book called Islamic Government.

I look up from my journal into 200 unblinking eyes. I remember something my editor said. "Use your humanism, not your journalism. So I close the book—and suddenly a flock of ravens descends. Forty women in stiff black robes standing so close I can feel the heat of their breath. One asks, "Vere is your hoosband? Vere are your sheeldren?" I can't even begin to explain. Then the youngest one, called Zahra, tells me her father invites me to dinner. I say, "Sure, I'll come to dinner." But a man outside the gate corrects me. "It's only a symbol, he says. "It means you'd be welcome in their home."

Our driver signals. It's time to go. I stand up and Zahra grabs my hand. "I love you," she says. I say, "I love you too."

I went skiing in Iran to find some kind of geopolitical light, to see if there's a meeting place between The Great Satan and The Axis of Evil. And because the skiing was supposed to be amazing. Five resorts lie within two hours of the capital city of Tehran, including Mount Tochal, a 13,005-foot peak accessible via a gondola on the northern edge of the city. On a good weekend, 50,000 Tehranis load the trunks of their Peugeots with Elans and Atomics and grind through traffic in search of fresh air, hardpack, and a taste of freedom.

The Alborz Mountains rise and rise again to 18,000 feet, towering over Tehran in a blinding, snow-covered mass. Clouds siphon moisture off the Caspian Sea and haul it over the mountains before dumping powder in quantities that reach 30 feet. The most expensive lift ticket is 11 bucks, cheap even by Iranian standards. And huge blankets of Utah-light snow lie as unruffled as starched linen, because most Iranians haven't contracted the powder disease.

On March 11, I packed my ski boots, avalanche beacon, and hijab, the headscarf and knee-length coat that's required for all women, regardless of whether you're Muslim or not. Mike and I arrived just before the British sailors and marines were taken hostage, and during a peak in the nuclear standoff. The United Nations was tightening sanctions. Our State Department had recently accused Iran of funding Al Qaeda terrorists and supplying bombs to insurgents in Iraq. As we flew into Iran, a man sitting next to me, who'd been sizing me up for hours, said, "Leave your New Yorker behind. You don't want to give them any reason to think you're up to something."

I'm not some rugg female version of Sebastian Junger. I'm a skier. I even had a "capture code," because you want to be able to call your closest relative and say, "How are the Red Sox doing?" and know that he or she is going to mobilize a rescue. My mom cried and my dad refused to talk about it, but my aunt was confident I'd be OK because my cousin works for the Defense Department and knows how to fly F-15s.

Hossein and I stand above a blanket of powder at the ski area Dizin. It's day six of my trip and Mike and I have managed to ditch our de facto minder Mohammad, who is nominally our guide and the owner of Mountain Zone Iran. He can barely ski, which means we can dust him at the top of our first lift ride, freeing ourselves to fraternize with powder skiers. Hossein bobs his head to a New Pornographers song on my iPod.

[pagebreak]

I look around. In every direction, giant treeless mountains roll away into a glass-blue sky. Windblown ridges stack up, black and jagged. Below us, mellow, powder-filled bowls drop for 3,000 feet to a tiny base area consisting of a ticket window, rental shop, ski school, and glitzy hotel. It's not Vail, but it's everything a skier needs. A billboard at the entrance with a likeness of Ayatollah Khamenei's face reads: "Faith. Self Care. Morality. These are the soul of the sport."

A hundred yards from the ski-school office (where a signed poster of extreme skier Dean Cummings hangs on the wall) is an egg-shaped gondola, circa 1969. Like the mosque entrance, the lift corrals are segregated. Guys go down one side and girls down the other, but unlike at a mosque, the lines meet, and the sexes squeeze into the same cabins. Thighs in unholy contact.

Hossein and I met a few days ago. He's 25. I'm 35. He skis in bright-yellow pants, a red Roffe coat, and a camo headband that smashes his tightly curled hair. A Dizin local, he works six days a week as a ski instructor, the same job as his dad, who in turn wears aviator shades, a cobalt one-piece, and an ever-present cigarette that smolders below a handlebar mustache.

"Traceeeeee," says Hossein. But that's the best he can do. We don't share a language so we just smile stupidly, because here we are, perched at the top of our eighth knee-deep powder run and nobody cares that we're going to ski it all up, making turns wherever we want to and shouting, "Ali, ya!" When we get to the bottom, we laugh and double high-five, more cross-gender touching than I've seen in Iran. Hossein likes it. He wants to do it again.

Mike skis up loaded with cameras. Then Soraya, whose name means "bright constellation of stars." Davoud, Mahmoud, and Hode follow, an Iranian powder posse. We bunch up and pose for a photo. Hossein, who for all I know has never touched a girl in public, slips his arm through mine. Click.

At the bottom of our run, we skate across a cat track to an area known as Gavazne. I stop in front of a detachable poma lift that's operated by a toothless man in rubber boots. Amped up on powder turns, I say, "Fire her up." But the lifties want to hang out. The crew files out of a stone shack, eight of them, ranging in age from 16 to 69. Their smiles are yellow and full of holes, their faces charred permanently black. Dariush, the hutkeeper, invites us in for chai tea. Sayid, 69, clutches prayer beads, threading them through his fingers while his toothless gums softly mumble. Dariush, who's 34 but looks 48, smokes a Camel down to the filter and tells me his dad ran this lift shack when he was a kid. This is a good job. It's good to work on native land. "The only thing missing," says Dariush, "is more women to have more fun."

We ski off the poma, spooning tracks for an hour, not because we have to but because we want to. Davoud's brother throws back flips off a berm, and the old guys shake their heads and chuckle just like the old guys at home. Before we go, we drop in on the lifties again. They're sitting in the same stone shack, smoking and drinking from the same kettle of chai.

"Gavazne is the people's piste," says Dariush. Iran is like America in this way: The rich people ski, but the workers are of the mountains.

"Skiing is an Islamic sport," says Mr. Shemshaki. I'm sitting in the offices of the Iranian Ski Federation with my notebook open again. I met Shemshaki a few days earlier when he walked out of the base shack at Darband Sar resort, flanked by snowboarders. I was feeling reporterly and important so I stuck out my hand. "Nice to meetcha, sir." But even though he's the president of the Ski Federation, the old Iranian guard doesn't shake hands with women. If you're over, say, 40, and you work for the government, you wouldn't dare touch a woman you aren't related to—at least not when anyone's looking.

Shemshaki sits at his desk next to some kind of henchman and beneath a photo of Khomeini. Other photos along the walls reveal past and present leaders' feelings about the sport. In one, former President Khatami smiles and embraces a group of young male skiers. In another, current President Ahmadinejad, apparently distracted by something more important, stares out of the frame while the ski team smiles into the camera.

Mr. Shemshaki and I chat—about budgets ($5 million per year), the World Cup (Iran will compete for the first time next year), and grass skiing (it's huge). Then, maybe because I'm a woman, Shemshaki dives into the women's issue.

[pagebreak]

He tells me he's proud of the way Iranian women are treated. Before the Islamic revolution in '79, there were five women instructors; now there are 500. Iranian women now have their own skiing hijab and equipment. Though Iranian women haven't competed in an Olympics yet, the federation has recruited 20 girls to train for 2010.

But back to this business of skiing being an Islamic sport. I don't get it. I thought all resorts were shut down after the revolution because they were considered too Western. I thought shredding—with its requisite après binging and celebrated one-night-standing—was against everything in the Koran.

And then there's the issue with the ski hijab. Since when did it become "Islamic" for women to pour themselves into skin-tight race suits and fly past men with their booties in full view?

"It's no problem," says Shemshaki.

"Because they're going so fast no one can get a good look?" I offer.

"Yes," he nods, "yes."

"As you can see," says the henchman, "everything is OK at the resorts. All minorities, all religions attend. Contrary to the media, Iranian skiing is a peaceful place. Skiing promotes peace."

"Hear, hear," I say, recalling accounts from the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah. The Iranians say they received the loudest applause from the opening-ceremony crowd. Everyone was clapping, say the Iranians, including Laura Bush. But not George. George just stood there scowling and shaking his head.

"We all believe in unity," the henchman says.

"I like it," I say.

"Our country comes skiing in peace," he says.And then we all stand up for a photo op: me, Shemshaki, and the silver trophy he wants me to present Skiing Magazine on behalf of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Directions to Freddy's house: Stand outside the Dizin hotel and hail a cab. Climb in, and say "Gooshekhize" to the driver. The translation is "a bug that goes into your ear to die." But all the drivers know the code. It means you've been invited to Freddy's for a party.

Mike, Soraya, and I walk up two flights of stairs to a low-roofed flat cut into the side of a mountain. Mike and I are nearing the end of our trip and until now we haven't penetrated the après scene. It's a small crowd—just Freddy, a few of his friends, and Merdad and Mitra, an Iranian hippie couple who lives again. They're sitting in the same stone shack, smoking and drinking from the same kettle of chai.

"Gavazne is the people's piste," says Dariush. Iran is like America in this way: The rich people ski, but the workers are of the mountains.

"Skiing is an Islamic sport," says Mr. Shemshaki. I'm sitting in the offices of the Iranian Ski Federation with my notebook open again. I met Shemshaki a few days earlier when he walked out of the base shack at Darband Sar resort, flanked by snowboarders. I was feeling reporterly and important so I stuck out my hand. "Nice to meetcha, sir." But even though he's the president of the Ski Federation, the old Iranian guard doesn't shake hands with women. If you're over, say, 40, and you work for the government, you wouldn't dare touch a woman you aren't related to—at least not when anyone's looking.

Shemshaki sits at his desk next to some kind of henchman and beneath a photo of Khomeini. Other photos along the walls reveal past and present leaders' feelings about the sport. In one, former President Khatami smiles and embraces a group of young male skiers. In another, current President Ahmadinejad, apparently distracted by something more important, stares out of the frame while the ski team smiles into the camera.

Mr. Shemshaki and I chat—about budgets ($5 million per year), the World Cup (Iran will compete for the first time next year), and grass skiing (it's huge). Then, maybe because I'm a woman, Shemshaki dives into the women's issue.

[pagebreak]

He tells me he's proud of the way Iranian women are treated. Before the Islamic revolution in '79, there were five women instructors; now there are 500. Iranian women now have their own skiing hijab and equipment. Though Iranian women haven't competed in an Olympics yet, the federation has recruited 20 girls to train for 2010.

But back to this business of skiing being an Islamic sport. I don't get it. I thought all resorts were shut down after the revolution because they were considered too Western. I thought shredding—with its requisite après binging and celebrated one-night-standing—was against everything in the Koran.

And then there's the issue with the ski hijab. Since when did it become "Islamic" for women to pour themselves into skin-tight race suits and fly past men with their booties in full view?

"It's no problem," says Shemshaki.

"Because they're going so fast no one can get a good look?" I offer.

"Yes," he nods, "yes."

"As you can see," says the henchman, "everything is OK at the resorts. All minorities, all religions attend. Contrary to the media, Iranian skiing is a peaceful place. Skiing promotes peace."

"Hear, hear," I say, recalling accounts from the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah. The Iranians say they received the loudest applause from the opening-ceremony crowd. Everyone was clapping, say the Iranians, including Laura Bush. But not George. George just stood there scowling and shaking his head.

"We all believe in unity," the henchman says.

"I like it," I say.

"Our country comes skiing in peace," he says.And then we all stand up for a photo op: me, Shemshaki, and the silver trophy he wants me to present Skiing Magazine on behalf of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Directions to Freddy's house: Stand outside the Dizin hotel and hail a cab. Climb in, and say "Gooshekhize" to the driver. The translation is "a bug that goes into your ear to die." But all the drivers know the code. It means you've been invited to Freddy's for a party.

Mike, Soraya, and I walk up two flights of stairs to a low-roofed flat cut into the side of a mountain. Mike and I are nearing the end of our trip and until now we haven't penetrated the après scene. It's a small crowd—just Freddy, a few of his friends, and Merdad and Mitra, an Iranian hippie couple who live in the woods of northern Iran. We take our shoes off and step inside, then stand around while the hippies go outside to do what hippies do. When they come back in, their eyelids are lower and they stare at me suspiciously. I'm writing in my notebook again.

Freddy is a sponsored pro snowboarder. When he's not at the party house in Dizin, he lives with his parents, two mild-mannered intellectuals, in Tehran. He's a Christian and shows me a sculpture Merdad made for him of his friend J.C. strung out on the cross—it's a familiar likeness, except this Jesus is all muscle and sinew, ropes of Rambo flesh pulled taught against the crucifix.

Freddy breaks out a drum and a guitar that sounds like a sitar. And while we drink vodka mixed with fake 7up, he and his little friend Majid jam Sufi music in what sounds like three-quarter time.

Everyone's getting lubed up except for Freddy and Majid. Freddy was once hooked on heroin. When he was using, he slept in a coffin and kept a knife stuck in the Koran. He used to buy pigeons so he could cut their heads off and pour out their blood. He didn't believe in a higher being until the day he got caught in an avalanche and was buried up to his neck for six hours.

"It was like God was saying, 'Come find me,'" he says.

He destroyed his coffin after that but he kept using until one day he decided he had to die. He mixed heroin with cocaine and ice. Shot it up and fell into a coma for 24 hours. As Freddy tells it, the angel of death came by and they hung out for a while. Then Freddy said to death, "Hold on a minute, could you?" and he came out of the coma. Now he leads Narcotics Anonymous groups and sponsors 30 recovering addicts, like Majid.

Freddy reaches down, grabs my arm, and turns it over, exposing the tender side. "I love your veins," he says. "You have good veins for heroin."

[pagebreak]

After the acoustic show, Freddy turns into a DJ. The lights go dark, a strobe flashes, and suddenly everyone's grinding. Freddy cranks the trance music. The vodka has taken hold. Hips are bumping and skin is sweating. We move into and out of intimate space.

Later a guy who wears his beanie almost as low as Dumb Donald from Fat Albert tells me how he once went out to buy cigarettes during a rally at Tehran University. The cops picked him up and put him in jail for four months. Every so often, they'd blindfold him, march him outside, and lift the blindfold so he could see the shallow grave before him. The blindfold would go back on, and they'd start shooting around him, the bullets kicking up dirt against his skin.

I'd been in Iran for 10 days and it was time to go home. My parents weren't going to rest until I was back at O'Hare, being frisked by the TSA. I packed my bags and said goodbye to Freddy, Hossein, and Soraya. Mike and I returned to Tehran, checked in to a hotel, and settled up with Mohammad, apologizing for ditching him every chance we got.

Sometime before dusk, the city smog lifted. I went outside, crossed Valieasr Street, and walked until I found a good view of the Alborz range. The sky was a light purple; the mountains bathed in alpenglow. The traffic had died down so much it almost seemed calm.

I thought about the friends I'd made and the powder I'd skied, and how absurd it was that I'd just had one of the best ski trips of my life in Iran. And then something made me think of Yasmine.

I was sitting at the base of Shemshak resort when a five-year-old girl in a pink Barbie one-piece and Rossignol goggles skied up, trailed by her instructor. Her hair, silky brown and in pigtails, was covered by a white sparkly hat. She skidded to a stop and her entire family—grandparents, mother, father, aunts, and uncles—descended upon her, praising her snowplow and covering her with kisses.

Her aunt, a business owner from Tehran who was educated abroad, told me Iranians have a long way to go toward personal aautonomy. "We have a hard life," she said. "Our government is corrupt." We kept talking until her mother, Yasmine's grandmother, signaled that she'd said too much. I looked up and saw Yasmine sitting in the shade in front of the Spacey Fries shack—just another kid at a ski resort, eating tater tots and drinking hot cocoa while the sun bounces off the snowpack.

Before I left, I asked Yasmine's father why he wants his daughter to learn how to ski. "It's refreshing when you go skiing," he said. And then, circling back and looking at me intently, he added, "I want her to have a better life. I want her to be free."

I board the plane at Heathrow Airport and settle in next to a thin, older guy in an eco-tour company hat. We chat. He's a long-distance runner from Oregon. He travels a lot.

"Where are you coming from?" he asks.

"Iran."

His face falls. I hear his teeth click."Iran," he repeats, and it's a statement, not a question. "Why would you do that?"

I try to explain why I went there. To see if my parents' Iran is my Iran; if George Bush's Iran is a skier's Iran. I tell him that the people were warm. That they love Americans. And that they're proud of their country, Persia, despite the things that have gone on.

But he can't take it. He can't take one more word.

"I saw what those people did to my people. I watched them paraded around."

I consider trying to convince him that those people are not these people. Not the people. Then I realize he probably won't understand. He's probably not a skier.

OCTOBER 2007

-------------------------------------

the woods of northern Iran. We take our shoes off and step inside, then stand around while the hippies go outside to do what hippies do. When they come back in, their eyelids are lower and they stare at me suspiciously. I'm writing in my notebook again.

Freddy is a sponsored pro snowboarder. When he's not at the party house in Dizin, he lives with his parents, two mild-mannered intellectuals, in Tehran. He's a Christian and shows me a sculpture Merdad made for him of his friend J.C. strung out on the cross—it's a familiar likeness, except this Jesus is all muscle and sinew, ropes of Rambo flesh pulled taught against the crucifix.

Freddy breaks out a drum and a guitar that sounds like a sitar. And while we drink vodka mixed with fake 7up, he and his little friend Majid jam Sufi music in what sounds like three-quarter time.

Everyone's getting lubed up except for Freddy and Majid. Freddy was once hooked on heroin. When he was using, he slept in a coffin and kept a knife stuck in the Koran. He used to buy pigeons so he could cut their heads off and pour out their blood. He didn't believe in a higher being until the day he got caught in an avalanche and was buried up to his neck for six hours.

"It was like God was saying, 'Come find me,'" he says.

He destroyed his coffin after that but he kept using until one day he decided he had to die. He mixed heroin with cocaine and ice. Shot it up and fell into a coma for 24 hours. As Freddy tells it, the angel of death came by and they hung out for a while. Then Freddy said to death, "Hold on a minute, could you?" and he came out of the coma. Now he leads Narcotics Anonymous groups and sponsors 30 recovering addicts, like Majid.

Freddy reaches down, grabs my arm, and turns it over, exposing the tender side. "I love your veins," he says. "You have good veins for heroin."

[pagebreak]

After the acoustic show, Freddy turns into a DJ. The lights go dark, a strobe flashes, and suddenly everyone's grinding. Freddy cranks the trance music. The vodka has taken hold. Hips are bumping and skin is sweating. We move into and out of intimate space.

Later a guy who wears his beanie almost as low as Dumb Donald from Fat Albert tells me how he once went out to buy cigarettes during a rally at Tehran University. The cops picked him up and put him in jail for four months. Every so often, they'd blindfold him, march him outside, and lift the blindfold so he could see the shallow grave before him. The blindfold would go back on, and they'd start shooting around him, the bullets kicking up dirt against his skin.

I'd been in Iran for 10 days and it was time to go home. My parents weren't going to rest until I was back at O'Hare, being frisked by the TSA. I packed my bags and said goodbye to Freddy, Hossein, and Soraya. Mike and I returned to Tehran, checked in to a hotel, and settled up with Mohammad, apologizing for ditching him every chance we got.

Sometime before dusk, the city smog lifted. I went outside, crossed Valieasr Street, and walked until I found a good view of the Alborz range. The sky was a light purple; the mountains bathed in alpenglow. The traffic had died down so much it almost seemed calm.

I thought about the friends I'd made and the powder I'd skied, and how absurd it was that I'd just had one of the best ski trips of my life in Iran. And then something made me think of Yasmine.

I was sitting at the base of Shemshak resort when a five-year-old girl in a pink Barbie one-piece and Rossignol goggles skied up, trailed by her instructor. Her hair, silky brown and in pigtails, was covered by a white sparkly hat. She skidded to a stop and her entire family—grandparents, mother, father, aunts, and uncles—descended upon her, praising her snowplow and covering her with kisses.

Her aunt, a business owner from Tehran who was educated abroad, told me Iranians have a long way to go toward personal autonomy. "We have a hard life," she said. "Our government is corrupt." We kept talking until her mother, Yasmine's grandmother, signaled that she'd said too much. I looked up and saw Yasmine sitting in the shade in front of the Spacey Fries shack—just another kid at a ski resort, eating tater tots and drinking hot cocoa while the sun bounces off the snowpack.

Before I left, I asked Yasmine's father why he wants his daughter to learn how to ski. "It's refreshing when you go skiing," he said. And then, circling back and looking at me intently, he added, "I want her to have a better life. I want her to be free."

I board the plane at Heathrow Airport and settle in next to a thin, older guy in an eco-tour company hat. We chat. He's a long-distance runner from Oregon. He travels a lot.

"Where are you coming from?" he asks.

"Iran."

His face falls. I hear his teeth click."Iran," he repeats, and it's a statement, not a question. "Why would you do that?"

I try to explain why I went there. To see if my parents' Iran is my Iran; if George Bush's Iran is a skier's Iran. I tell him that the people were warm. That they love Americans. And that they're proud of their country, Persia, despite the things that have gone on.

But he can't take it. He can't take one more word.

"I saw what those people did to my people. I watched them paraded around."

I consider trying to convince him that those people are not these people. Not the people. Then I realize he probably won't understand. He's probably not a skier.

OCTOBER 2007

-------------------------------------

ans have a long way to go toward personal autonomy. "We have a hard life," she said. "Our government is corrupt." We kept talking until her mother, Yasmine's grandmother, signaled that she'd said too much. I looked up and saw Yasmine sitting in the shade in front of the Spacey Fries shack—just another kid at a ski resort, eating tater tots and drinking hot cocoa while the sun bounces off the snowpack.

Before I left, I asked Yasmine's father why he wants his daughter to learn how to ski. "It's refreshing when you go skiing," he said. And then, circling back and looking at me intently, he added, "I want her to have a better life. I want her to be free."

I board the plane at Heathrow Airport and settle in next to a thin, older guy in an eco-tour company hat. We chat. He's a long-distance runner from Oregon. He travels a lot.

"Where are you coming from?" he asks.

"Iran."

His face falls. I hear his teeth click."Iran," he repeats, and it's a statement, not a question. "Why would you do that?"

I try to explain why I went there. To see if my parents' Iran is my Iran; if George Bush's Iran is a skier's Iran. I tell him that the people were warm. That they love Americans. And that they're proud of their country, Persia, despite the things that have gone on.

But he can't take it. He can't take one more word.

"I saw what those people did to my people. I watched them paraded around."

I consider trying to convince him that those people are not these people. Not the people. Then I realize he probably won't understand. He's probably not a skier.

OCTOBER 2007

-------------------------------------